When flood and election seasons overlap

Published: May 22, 2018
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The writer heads Pattan Development Organisation and can be reached at bari@pattan.org

The writer heads Pattan Development Organisation and can be reached at bari@pattan.org

There is a real possibility that the next general elections will take place in the first week of August. With electioneering already under way and set to become intense after 5th June when the tenure of the present government ends, our election officials seem to have forgotten about the monsoon season and the threat of flooding between July and September. Remember Pakistan has faced 23 major flood disasters between 1950 and 2015 or roughly one every three years. And though floods have largely spared the country over the last three years, is it wise to ignore the threat this year? We already know that apart from the 1992 floods, almost all floods in the country have occurred between July and August.

The scale of devastation caused by flooding has always been high due to poverty and poor disaster management. On average, each flood leaves a trail of destruction across a vast area of 26,684 square kilometres or more than 8,500 villages ravaged. One in every sixth village is affected by floods. Large areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province are affected by flood-triggered landsliding during the monsoon season. Analysis of the recent delimitation shows that between 25% and 35% of National Assembly constituencies fall in the flood-and land slide-prone areas. This is indeed a frightening scale.

On 18th January news reports suggested that Pakistan could observe almost a doubling in high-end flood risk with 11 million people at risk of floods. Even if the past is an old yardstick. For the future, we must be prepared for more devastation as glacier melting, deforestation, cloud bursting, population density and urbanisation take their toll on the country. At the same time, governance is disappearing.

Consider the impact. As a result of floods and landslide incidences, vehicular movement becomes almost impossible within and to the affected areas. Also there is a need to remind authorities that riverine communities move out of active flood-prone areas immediately before the flooding. Most government buildings, especially schools in flood-prone areas, are built at ground level. Naturally, they get inundated first when floods hit and they are also the last to dry out. Electricity supply is also cut. Too much floodwater turns life upside down. I have been working with riverine communities for the last 25 years and have witnessed this situation in each flood. Simply moving to and within flood-hit areas becomes a nightmare.

Moreover, there is also a need to assess its impact on polling. Most polling stations are set up in schools. Touch wood. Should floods hit, there will be no place to set up polling stations and there will be no dry place to set up tents as alternative polling booths. It will be next to impossible to transport polling material and staff to their areas of duty. Observers and ECP monitors will also face difficulty in performing their roles too. Should people cope with the disaster or go to polling or should the government assist them or hold polling at all? Whatever the strategy, it will result in a lower than usual turnout and severe criticism of the government, the Election Commission of Pakistan and the National Disaster Management Authority.

While I am not in favour of postponing the electoral exercise, I wish to make the public, media and political parties aware of the potential threat and its likely impact. I have visited the websites of all the three highly powerful commissions and I could not find anything relevant in this regard.

Please forgive me if you (commissions) have a contingency plan. But do share it with public. This will definitely enhance public confidence in their respective preparedness — flood and election.

May I ask the ECP if it has a contingency plan? Or did the National Disaster Management Commission and the Federal Flood Commission approach the ECP for assistance? On 28th March after a long gap the National Disaster Management Commission held its fifth meeting. Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi chaired the meeting. Khursheed Shah and Sherry Rehman, leader of opposition in the National Assembly and Senate, respectively, also attended the meeting. Yet no one in the meeting raised the issue of flood preparedness in light of the conduct of the election.

If there is no contingency plan, then I would like to suggest the following. First, prepare flood endurance indicators (FIIs) in consultation with the NDMA and the FFC. Use these indicators for decision-making purposes. Any area where FIIs are overrun, delay the polling temporarily. Second, since many districts don’t have updated contingency plans and have not formed District Management Plans order them to do it ASAP. Also order them to form District Management Authorities (DDMAs) too, which are non-existent in many districts. This is a requirement under the Disaster Management Act of 2010. Third, the recent delimitation exercise has built knowledge and skills of revenue officials. They could be involved in this exercise. Fifth, during the flood disasters, flood-prone communities move to embankments, banks of canals and spurs or nearby roadsides. Mapping of all such areas is imperative. These places could be used to set up emergency polling booths. But make sure all of them are repaired well in advance.

Sixth, analyses of datasets of waterworks, ie, dams/barrages/head works and of rivers’ flow clearly establish that very often managers of dams violated standard operating procedures while managing inflow and outflow of dams. Also, it appears they lacked coordination with other departments. As a result, floodwaters were turned into disasters. For instance, in 1992 one million cusecs of water were released from Mangla Dam at one go. The water merged with the River Chenab at Trimmu when it was at its highest peak. That converted manageable disaster into a mega disaster downstream Trimmu.

Similarly, at 6am, 30th July 2010 managers of Tarbela Dam released 600,000 cusecs of water when the River Kabul at Attock bridge (just a few kilomteres down) was carrying 400,000 cusecs of water. That created an unprecedented disaster in Pakistan’s history.

Also consider. Breaching of embankments during high floods has always created controversy. Often poor farmers are found saying that large landlords manipulate the irrigation department in order to divert floodwater towards their lands. Besides, it is a fact that very often downstream areas of breaches face more losses. For instance, in 2010 district Muzaffargarh suffered more than double of the combined losses of Mianwali and Layyah districts.

Former chief justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry had constituted a commission of inquiry to establish causes of the 2010 mega disaster. Mismanagement of the irrigation department and dam managers was found as one of the major factors of the disaster. There is a lot to learn from the commission’s report. The ECP may approach all the relevant authorities in order to prevent misgovernance of rivers and dams in 2018. The only way forward is to have a well thought-out contingency plan and to rehearse it repeatedly before the polling.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 22nd, 2018.

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